by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The new year has arrived. Many writers are launching into their latest ideas and reviving old ones. One of the most difficult hurdles to overcome when beginning a new story can be the opening. Where do you start? What does the audience need to know immediately and what can be revealed over time? What will be engaging and what will be confusing? In our age of short attention spans, we only have a few minutes to capture the imagination of someone who is giving our story a chance. What are the most effective means of using that precious time?
Here are five ways to hook your audience just as your story is launching.
1. THE CHARACTER HOOK
Opening with the lead character is almost always a solid way to begin a story. It psychologically communicates to the audience whose story this is and who we should care the most about. Whenever stories open with a character other than the protagonist, there is always a risk that the audience will be confused and have to recalibrate once the protagonist is introduced.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens with Mildred Hayes, the lead character in the story, who immediately piques our curiosity with her sudden interest in three dilapidated billboards on the edge of town. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel opens in a similar fashion with our heroine standing before a live audience telling jokes. Both stories tell us who the protagonist is while simultaneously causing us to wonder what is motivating her to do what we see her doing.
2. THE INTRIGUING MOMENT
Whether or not a story opens with the protagonist, making the first on-screen moments interesting is essential. Giving the audience an unusual situation, scenario, or action can build interest not just in what is being witnessed, but also in who the characters involved are.
Lady Bird opens with the protagonist and her mother together in bed, inside a cheap motel. We are invited to consider the nature of these two women’s relationship and whether they were forced to share a bed or chose to. When it is established that this is a mother and her daughter, it only peels back layers of more questions rather than simply answering our initial inquiries.
The Florida Project opens with young Dicky yelling to his friends, Moonee and Scooty, that there are “freshies at The Future.” Even though it is Moonee who will emerge as the protagonist, the moment itself is intriguing, as we are immediately curious as to what “freshies at The Future” are and why these children are so excited about this discovery.
3. THE BACKSTORY
With some narratives, it is most effective to establish the events that will eventually send the protagonist out on her or his journey. While building backstory seems like a natural entry point for every story, caution must be exercised, as audiences may not later recall the details of these important events, since they do not have a frame of reference for who the characters are yet. The most helpful backstories build organically and develop the narrative as well as the character at the same time.
In The Disaster Artist, we are given a quick introduction to the passion, desires, and absurdity of Tommy Wiseau, while also establishing how he met Greg Sestero. Their relationship is not only necessary to launch the story but also serves as the ever-evolving core around which all the events that will follow happen. Downsizing provides the backstory for how the world where the story takes place became possible in its opening scenes, without yet revealing the protagonist we will follow.
4. ESTABLISHING THE WORLD
A certain amount of world building must be done in the early stages of every story. However, wisely choosing the events and visuals of the opening scene can craft the narrative in such an efficient way that the audience feels initiated into the world of the story before they have met any of the significant characters or know any plot elements.
Dunkirk opens with paper leaflets falling from the sky, which we quickly see are propaganda. Not only is this interesting visually, it also sets up the world where this story takes place very quickly. Each episode of Black Mirror deliberately gives the audience clues as to the world of the story before unfolding the central conflict that will play out.
5. BEGINNING WITH THE ENDING
While not always the right approach, sometimes letting the audience in on how the story resolves and then going back to reveal how the events led to this moment draws the audience’s attention and interest in trying to piece together the narrative. This “bookending” approach is a classic trope of storytelling that continues to remain powerful, even as storytellers find unique ways to execute it.
In I, Tonya, the story begins with the present state of all the characters involved. We see the humor and tragedy of their lives, and are then curious as to what led to the embittered relationships that we now see. In the opening moments of The Shape of Water, we see a woman, we will come to know as our protagonist, sleeping underwater. How is this possible? How did she get here? What led to this unusual situation? We are looking forward to the events of the story before we even know what they are – which is exactly the frame of mind the storyteller hopes to put an audience in.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.